Sam Bowman

The profit motive would boost Gove’s Free Schools agenda

The promise of Michael Gove’s Free Schools programme — as distinct from his Academies programme — is slow to materialise. What seemed like the government’s most radical and important reform has stalled as expected take-up has fallen far short of expectations. 350,000 new school places are required to meet increasing demand by 2015 — to address this, the Conservatives had set their sights on setting up 3,000 new Free Schools in nine years. But, so far, there have been just 323 applications, with only a handful due to open in September 2011, and the DfE capital budget is set to fall by 60 per cent to £3.4 billion by 2014-15. This constitutes a massive capital shortfall. A storm is gathering in education.

A new report published by the Adam Smith Institute today, Profit-Making Free Schools: Unlocking the Potential of England’s Proprietorial School Sector, argues that this challenge can be met by giving true freedom to Free Schools and allowing profit-making schools to operate within the programme. In a groundbreaking study of profit-making school outcomes, it shows that there are 199 for-profit schools (or 41 per cent of the total) charging fees on a par with the average state expenditure per pupil. Both this subset of inexpensive for-profit schools, and for-profit schools in general, significantly outperformed the independent sector as a whole in Ofsted inspections between 2007 and 2010.

As things stand, there is excess capacity in the for-profit schools market. There are 60,000 unfilled places in mainstream independent schools, the majority of which are in good schools where pupils do better than the national average. 41 per cent of all for-profit schools charge fees less than, or on a par with, the national average per pupil funding in the state-maintained sector.

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